By Julia Reitz, Champaign County State's Attourney
Matt Wilhelm, 25, died on September 8, 2006, after he was struck by a vehicle on September 2 while riding his bicycle on Illinois 130 in Champaign County. The driver, Jennifer Stark, 19, admitted that she had been distracted by her cell phone and left her lane. When she looked up, she saw Matt, but was unable to get out of his way to avoid hitting him.
At the conclusion of their investigation, the Illinois State Police wrote Ms. Stark a ticket for Improper Lane Usage, a petty offense, punishable by a fine of up to $1000.00. The prosecutor is not required to follow the decision of the police agency. We have the discretion to decline to prosecute, or to file additional charges. In light of Matt’s death, we reviewed the State Police investigation and considered filing more serious charges against Ms. Stark.
The only other possible charge available to us was Reckless Homicide, a class 2 felony punishable by from 3 to 14 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Reckless Homicide requires a finding that the accused acted purposefully, with a knowing acceptance of a specific risk, and with willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others, when causing the death of another. Following extensive research, consultation with other prosecutors, judges, and attorneys, we determined that Ms. Stark’s actions, while clearly negligent, did not rise to the level of recklessness as it has been defined in the statute and in case history, making a Reckless Homicide conviction unlikely.
There is a significant hole in Illinois law with regard to traffic fatalities. Prosecutors are left with a choice between two charges: a petty offense punishable by a fine, and a class 2 felony, punishable by a significant prison sentence. Neither of the possible charges or penalties appropriately address the facts of the Wilhelm case and many cases like it: a driver, through his or her negligence, causes the death of another. Many other states have Negligent Vehicular Homicide statutes, which provide for increased penalties when a driver negligently causes the death of another.
With the assistance of the League of Illinois Bicyclists, the Wilhelm family, the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association, and our local legislators, my staff and I have drafted a proposed new law to create the offense of Negligent Vehicular Homicide in Illinois. This offense would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year incarceration in the local Correctional Center, or by a community based sentence of public service work and education. We also propose that the offender’s driver’s license be subject to a mandatory term of suspension. Currently, the Secretary of State has the discretion to suspend an offender’s driver’s license following a traffic fatality.
As State’s Attorney in Champaign County, I appreciate the support that the League of Illinois Bicyclists has provided for this proposal. A Negligent Vehicular Homicide law would help Illinois prosecutors more appropriately address tragic circumstances such as Matt Wilhelm’s death, and would benefit all users of our public roadways.